ROME – Two and a half years ago, Safa Al Alqoshy shared a heartwarming embrace with Pope Francis while in Rome to attend a Synod of Bishops on youth, before leaving the gathering early to care for his ailing mother.

During their brief conversation, Al Alqoshy told Crux, the pope “told me to have faith and he promised me that he would pray (for me), and he promised me that someday he would be in Iraq to visit the people and especially the young people.”

Now, with the pope’s March 5-8 visit to Iraq just days away, “he is doing what he promised.”

Francis will become the first pope ever to set foot in Iraq, despite numerous attempts from his predecessors, including an effort from John Paul II which eventually fell through when talks with then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein broke down.

During his whirlwind visit, Francis is expected to make stops in Baghdad, Erbil, Mosul, Qaraqosh, the Plain of Ur, traditionally held to be the birthplace of the biblical figure Abraham, and Najaf, where he will meet with top Shi’a cleric Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Sistani.

For Al Alqoshy, the pope’s trip is “very, very important” not only because it will be the first time a pope visits the country and because of Iraq’s biblical significance, but it will give “hope to the people, saying that the pope has not forgotten us, giving people that push to stay and touch their land. And then maybe the people who immigrated can have the faith to come back to their country.”

What Pope Francis says during his visit, in Al Alqoshy’s view, is secondary, because for him, just the fact that he is coming says everything there is to say.

“I don’t need to hear any message, only his coming to Iraq is the message,” Al Alqoshy said, adding, “popes visit Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, but here in Iraq, no one has visited Iraq from the popes in history.”

The fact that Pope Francis has insisted on coming despite the coronavirus and recent rocket attacks in Erbil and bombings in Baghdad “is the biggest message” he can send, Al Alqoshy said.

During the 2018 Synod of Bishops, Al Alqoshy – who was the only Iraqi youth to attend the event – drew an enormous round of applause and a few tears from other participants after describing what it is like to grow up amid war and violent persecution, and the long-term psychological impact that can have on young people.

Now a dentist working to complete his surgical training in Baghdad, Al Alqoshy said he hopes to meet the pope a second time when he arrives at the airport, but he’s unsure whether he will be able to given concerns over the country’s worsening coronavirus outbreak.

Al Alqoshy said there’s a shortage of doctors and specialists in hospitals, as many have contracted COVID-19 themselves and “have a lot of consequences and problems with their lungs or with their brains,” so even dentists have been called in to assist COVID patients.

Al Alqoshy said this is the main reason why he is not participating more closely in preparations for the trip.

He will go on vacation a few days before Pope Francis arrives and will get his COVID test. If the result is negative, he will be at the airport to meet the pope for his arrival to Baghdad, but if he tests positive, he’ll have to watch the event on television.

“I can’t do more than hope to see the pope, but I can’t leave the people who need my service at the hospital,” he said.

In terms of what impact Pope Francis’s visit might have on Iraq, which for decades has been plagued by war, terrorism, conflict, and an ongoing economic crisis, Al Alqoshy said he believes “it will put pressure on the government and religious men” and cause them to reflect on the “improvement of Christians’ rights, living in dignity, and even protecting them and their land.”

Should this happen, “it may reduce the number of people who immigrate, give them hope,” he said, noting that the spiritual element of Francis’s visit is important, “but other issues related to society and to the law, the government, are important too. So, we hope the pope’s visit will give a push to our lives and all these issues.”

Yet despite his hope that the papal visit will have a political impact, Al Alqoshy said he doesn’t think the pope himself will be overly political.

Recalling negotiations for Pope John Paul II’s attempt to visit Iraq, Al Alqoshy said that at a certain point, Hussein asked John Paul to speak out about some political issues, which John Paul refused to do on the grounds that his visit “was for faith” and the people of Iraq, “so I don’t think that the political issues will be included.”

Asked what he believes the future of Christianity is in Iraq, given the fears voiced by many in recent years that the country’s dwindling Christian population might soon disappear, Al Alqoshy said he doesn’t think that will be the case.

“Here in Iraq it’s not the first and not the last time that minorities, Christians, or all Iraqi people, have had a difficult time or difficult years,” he said. “Iraq and Baghdad in history have had a lot of problems, from the people around Iraq or far off that want to take the wealth of Iraq, so I think the situation of Christians will be okay.”

Christians, he said, “are part of Iraq, and what is happening to all Iraqi people is happening to them, so we are all equals, and we need to improve the situation of all Iraq, it’s not special for the Christians. We have a good situation here, and I hope that the visit of Pope Francis will improve some important things.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen